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Chat with veteran Broadway actor Telly Leung

Broadway veteran Telly Leung co-produced a documentary with Aaron Albano, another Broadway veteran and active member of the AAPI Broadway community. It is called TOGETHER and it is currently available via Broadway on demand.

Telly Leung has many Broadway credits to her name, including Aladdin, Allegiance, Flower Drum Song, Godspell and more, plus TV and film appearances. Along with his acting resume, Telly has also released his own music and solo albums.

What inspired you to pursue a career in theatre?

I really started doing theater when I went to high school. I went to a math and science high school in New York called Stuyvesant High School and being involved in the after school musicals was a great way to give my brain a break from physics and calculus and meet friends who love musicals, like me. I did it for fun. I didn’t even know it could be a profession until my high school drama teacher encouraged me to audition for college performing arts programs. “Could you study it in college and get a degree in it?” It was breathtaking for me! I ended up applying to both college liberal arts programs (where I could make my parents happy by getting a “real” degree) and also auditioned for performing arts colleges like NYU, Emerson, and Carnegie Mellon. Eventually I decided to go to Carnegie Mellon, one of the oldest conservatory programs in the country. I finally felt like I was surrounded by other people JUST LIKE ME: People who loved to eat, breathe and sleep. CMU also gave me great financial aid based on my audition, so even though my parents weren’t so keen on me studying acting in college, they had no choice! In my traditional Chinese house, money talks! And CMU gave me the money to give my theater dreams a chance.

What was the first show you saw on Broadway?

The first show I saw was CATS at the Winter Garden Theater. I think I was 10 or 11 years old. It was a school trip to a Wednesday matinee. I’ll never forget walking up to Ken Page at intermission as Old Deut. I also remember seeing Laurie Beechman as Grizabella. We were all seated in the last row of the mezzanine, but I could feel his voice going through my body! It was so powerful!

What show did you make your Broadway debut in?

I made my Broadway debut in the 2002 revival of Flower Drum Song with Lea Salonga. I was on the set and took over Wang Ta (played by Jose Llana).

What is your favorite musical?

It’s hard to pick a favorite, but I have to say RENT. This is the show that made me want to do theater when I was a teenager. I grew up in New York and got to see the original cast 12 or 13 times in the summer of 1996 at the Nederlander Theatre. I was one of those RENT bosses who slept outside the box office to get my emergency $20 ticket. It was a dream come true when I joined this company in 2006 and then became part of the final cast.

Do you have a dream role?

I am very lucky. Many of my Broadway dreams have come true. I worked with Stephen Sondheim on PACIFIC OVERTURES. I was able to fulfill a lifelong dream of creating a role on Broadway when I did ALLEGIANCE. I always wanted to play THE PHANTOM. Maybe one day…

Favorite musical song?

Again, choosing a favorite is so difficult. My favorite Broadway love song is I’ll Cover You by RENT. I think GYPSY is the perfect musical, and I never get tired of hearing SOME PEOPLE, which I think is an anthem for all of us in the theater. It is empowering. It’s rebellious. This is Broadway belting at its finest.

What were your musical influences?

I’ve had so many. I was lucky to grow up in New York and have Broadway in my backyard. I saved my money and often went to the TKTS booth (or bought emergency tickets). Broadway influences include: Betty Buckley, Patti Lupone, Howard McGillin, Bernadette Peters, Billy Porter, Carol Channing, Terrence McNally, Chita Rivera, Stephen Sondheim, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Lea Salonga, Norm Lewis, Michael McElroy, Davis Gaines, Nathan Lane, Faith Prince, Liz Callaway…the list goes on. But, I also grew up in New York listening to the radio, so my early musical influences also reflect the music of my childhood and adolescence: Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Janet Jackson, Madonna, Luther Vandross, Mariah Carey, Stevie Wonder, George Michael, Elton John, Boyz to Men… I could go on and on.

Your favorite role?

I loved being in RENT. If it still worked, I’d still be there! I also loved my time at Aladdin. To be a leading man in a company made up of some of the best theater people in the business was a real privilege and honor. There’s a lot of love at the New Amsterdam Theater, and everyone in this building is a gem.

How does it feel to be back on stage and having live theater and performances again?

I loved performing in front of a live audience again. During the darkest hours of the pandemic, I felt like I would be doing gigs on Zoom forever, so having the chance to sing for live audiences now is awesome! I relish every opportunity I have with a new appreciation for being INHABITED. I have concerts scheduled at performing arts centers and symphonies across the country, and I can’t wait to see them.

Any advice you have for Asian American actors? Could you tell us more about the Asian American experience in theatre?

My biggest piece of advice: don’t wait for someone to present you with opportunities. Make your own!

As an AAPI artist, I learned early on that I didn’t have as many opportunities on Broadway as others. I started creating my own work. My first Broadway show, Flower Drum Song, ended in 4 months – and then I was out of work. I quickly organized a club act for myself and created it at DON’T TELL MAMA. Creating my own cabaret show was a crash course in “producing 101”. I was not only “the talent”, but I was also the business manager, the publicist, the accountant, the costume designer and the manager of my own show! Yes, it was a lot of work – but it was also extremely rewarding to have complete control over my own artistic opportunity and it felt so good not to sit around and WAIT helplessly for a phone call from my agent for the next hearing.

Eventually, I created a whole other career in the nightlife world and met some of the best musicians in New York. Over 2 decades, we’ve done a lot of gigs together, made a lot of music together, and we’ve even released 2 solo albums and several singles and EPs together as well. This all grew out of my frustration at not having as many opportunities as my Caucasian counterparts in this industry.

All of this self-produced work has now led me to learn many lessons about production, and after 2 decades in this business, I can proudly call myself a “producer”. My latest project is a 50 minute documentary titled TOGETHER, which is currently available on Broadway on Demand. This is an idea brought to me by my dear friend and fellow AAPI Broadway performer, Aaron Albano (Mary Poppins, Newsies, Allegiance, Hamilton). He wanted to bring together a group of 13 diverse dancers on the one-year anniversary of Broadway closing in March 2021 for a dance lesson and a socially distanced discussion about the year that was and the future of Broadway. I am extremely proud of this project as it is a rare opportunity to hear the stories of some of the hardest working people in our profession.

Did I always know what I was doing? Nope. Did I always have the answer or the resources to produce? Absolutely not. Did I ask questions, swallow my pride, and ask for help when I needed it? ABSOLUTELY. A big part of being an artist that survives this business, especially being an artist of color, is finding support for your tribe and your community. Find your community and start telling the stories you want to tell.

Apart from the theatre, what do you like to do? Hobby?

I just moved to Harlem, and I have a nice big kitchen for once in my life – so I really enjoyed cooking with my husband.

Photo credit: Gavin Calais